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Saturday, June 21, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

It's a Disney world after all


Once upon a time — about 50 years ago — a man had a dream. The dream involved the creation of a magical kingdom where the man's many visitors could frolic happily. So happily, in fact, that they would each shell out tons of money to be there. Oh, and the dream also involved a mouse.

While Walt Disney lived to see that dream come true in the States, he never saw the magic of Disneyland in Japan. The Japanese version may look the same, but it's not. The differences work out not so much in language and attractions, but in overall cultural oomph.

Everywhere else Disneyland is the "happiest place on earth." Not here. Here that's an understatement. Here Disneyland is the center of the happy universe. It is bliss sugarcoated with delight and then deep-fried in sheer joy. It is where angels go when they die. It is where all your troubles disappear, almost as fast as your money.

I know this because I live in the Kanto area and I have seen the Disney effect on young people. Here's a small slice of one of my university classes, on the last day before vacation — any vacation, be it spring, summer or the first golden week of May.

Me: So. . . how about your vacation? Have any plans?

Student: Yes, I'm going to Disneyland.

Multiply this by 25 students and you get an idea of how profoundly Disney has touched Japanese youth. And perhaps too of how dull my classes can be.

Of course, it is not only youth. Disney ensnares kids and adults as well. I have a clear memory of my Japanese sister-in-law weeping when she first set foot in Disneyland. She and her children had flown up from Kagoshima just for the experience. "It's the dream of a lifetime," she sniffled, as she mugged for her photo with Mickey.

If so, Kanto area youth have that lifetime dream several times a year. Another peek at my teaching:

Me: And so. . . How many times have you visited Disneyland?

Student: Let's see. (She counts on her fingers.) Um, 57.

An exaggeration? Sure, but one stretched from the truth. Every student in every class has been to Disneyland or its Disney Sea partner oodles of times. Ten, 20, three dozen and so on. They may have never been to see Kabuki, never toured Odaiba's fabulous Miraikan, and never stopped to smell the roses at the lovely Furukawa Garden, but they have been to Disneyland more times than they have years of life.

Me: Can you tell me why?

Student: Why!? But . . . why do you even ask?

And perhaps that is the answer. Or part of it. In group-oriented Japan, this is what youth do, the Tokyo brand that is. It defines them. Here you don't go cruise the strip. You go to Disneyland. To ask why is to raise existential questions.

Yes, you go to Disneyland. Where everyone else goes. The crowds may seem as thick and annoying as anywhere, but here even standing in line is fun. After all, you are not just wasting time. You are wasting time in the happiest place on Earth.

The Disney magnet draws more girls than boys, a phenomenon no doubt tied to "cute-mania." The girls swoon upon the souvenir shops and gorge themselves on the flashy attractions and parades. And what could be more romantic than to clutch your boyfriend's hand, while your other hand blows kisses to Mickey Mouse? Old Walt himself could never have dreamed such a scene.

The appeal for young men, meanwhile, is the same as it is anywhere. That being, the appeal of young women. As long as Japanese young ladies yearn to wish upon a star at Disneyland, the young men are bound to follow.

My own visits to Disneyland do not quite equal the years of my life. Yet, when my sons were tykes, we always made an annual pilgrimage to Mouseville. Our best visit came on a day with the Chiba sky opened and rained like hell on Mickey's parade. The water washed away the crowds and, while we had to sidestroke from attraction to attraction, at least we had no waiting in line.

And the worst visit?

That would be the day when all four of us — my wife, sons and I — got stuck in the middle of the "It's A Small World" ride. The engine gummed up and our boat stopped moving. But the little people still kept singing that blasted song.

Forget waterboarding. Listen to that song for 20 minutes and you'll confess to anything.

But Japanese girls might have had the time of their lives. Because for them, you see, it's a Disney world, after all.



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